Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library
Passages from Rousseau’s Ghost by Terence Ball
Then I remembered Jeremiah Altmann. Sir Jeremiah, as he now was. My former tutor and Ted’s old friend at Oxford. He was the leading English – arguably the leading European – historian of ideas, and an expert on Rousseau and almost any other political theorist you might care to name. And an original and influential political theorist in his own right.
It had been with some trepidation that I climbed the ancient wooden staircase to Altmann’s rooms, and knocked on his door. The wait seemed interminable. Then the door opened. I was surprised by what I saw. Somehow, no doubt because of his towering reputation, I had expected him to be tall. He wasn’t. He was short, stout, balding, with a countenance that seemed both fierce and friendly.
“Come in, Mr. Davis. Come in. Altmann’s my name,” he said in very rapid and slightly accented English as he shook my hand vigorously. “Do have a seat, Over there, if you please,” he said, motioning me toward the larger and more comfortable of the two overstuffed armchairs in his large book-lined study.
“Now,” he said, settling into the other chair, “tell me about yourself. You’re an American, I believe. From where do you hail?”
“Oklahoma,” I stammered. “A small town. You’ve probably never heard of it. Durant. Durant, Oklahoma.”
“Ah, yes. Oklahoma. Will Rogers. A genius. Roosevelt was very fond of him, a great admirer.”
I learned then that Altmann’s thinking – and his conversation – was prompted by association. One thing reminded him of another, and that of another, and so on, in an endlessly interconnected display of memory and erudition that seemed both extraordinary and normal. Normal for him, that is, and for no one else. And I was reminded that as a young man during World War II Altmann had held a minor diplomatic office in the British Embassy in Washington which by force of character and intellect he had turned into a position of some importance. He became a favorite of Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s, and something of a secret go-between, or “back channel” in diplomatic lingo.
This man, a refugee from Russia and a Jew, who had played no small part in twentieth-century politics, was no politician. He was first and foremost a scholar intrigued with, perhaps preoccupied by, the history of ideas. Not ideas in the abstract, but ideas put into practice by political parties and movements. Ideas and beliefs that had produced the twentieth century and all its horrors.
“Our century,” he observed in a famous essay, “is the stage on which scripts written by earlier, and especially nineteenth century, theorists have been acted out. The well-intended theories and fictions of an earlier age have become the all-too-real terrors of our time. We have thought and argued and marched, by and large, under the banner of their age, which they fancied as an age of science: or, perhaps one should now say, of pseudo-science. The ‘scientific’ racism of Gobineau gave rise to the gas chambers and ovens of Auschwitz. Marx’s ‘scientific’ socialism gave rise to the Gulag. Ideas – good, bad, or banal – have consequences. And the goodness, badness, or banality of these ideas has little to do with their authors’ intentions and everything to do with their final fruits, some of which are poisonous beyond belief and even perhaps beyond their authors’ worse imaginings.”
The terrors of the twentieth century were due, Altmann argued, to the misbegotten attempt to make an imperfect world – and the imperfect beings who inhabited it – perfect. The vision of a perfected world in which like-minded equals agreed about everything and marched together in agreeably harmonious lock-step was Altmann’s idea of hell. Against the millenarian and utopian idea that “the crooked shall be made straight,” he liked to repeat Kant’s dictum that “From the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight can ever be made.” And that, for Altmann, was neither an expression of cynicism nor a counsel of despair, but a plea that we recognize and appreciate the wondrous and irreducible plurality of human cultures, communities, individuals.
Altmann seemed somehow to grow taller as he talked in a torrent of words, on every subject imaginable, and almost as though he had known Tolstoy, Kant, Herder, and a hundred others personally, indeed intimately. My weekly tutorials were a bracing experience for which I was not fully prepared and whose full meaning did not occur to me until much later.
I was a mediocre student in Altmann’s subject, and I knew it. And I know now what I only suspected then: that his judgments of my weekly essays were more generous than just, and meant to encourage an easily discouraged boy who felt unsure of himself, and very far from home.
“Mr. Davis. Do come in. Nice to see you again after all these years.” Sir Jeremiah had large hands and his handshake was still firm. He had aged well, I thought. He now had less hair and was rather more stooped than I’d remembered him. He was dressed, as always, in a black three-piece wool suit, which now seemed slightly large for his shrinking frame. From his vest dangled the gold chain of an antique pocket watch. The only other bright colour came from the red silk handkerchief that protruded from the left breast-pocket of his suit coat. The lively, darting eyes behind his horn-rimmed spectacles made him look like a horned owl or some other sharp-eyed bird of prey. His eyrie looked pretty much as I remembered it. Dark floor-to-ceiling bookshelves contrasted with the well-worn red and blue Persian carpets. His large wooden writing table was littered with books and papers.
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